ithin sight of the sunbathers at Old Man’s surf spot, 55 miles north of San Diego, California, loom a pair of 176-foot-tall orbs. They’re a strange backdrop, home of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Since its first reactor fired up in 1968, the plant has powered millions of lives. But now these concrete and steel domes house a problem. Inside their frames sit millions of pounds of radio-active fuel no longer of use to anyone. In 2012, a small radiation leak forced the shutdown of one reactor. Rather than go through the regulatory red-tape of restarting the remaining reactor at reduced power, Southern California Edison, the operator, decided to shutter the whole plant. This year, workers will begin dismantling it as part of the costliest and biggest nuclear decommissioning project ever attempted in the U.S. The initial deactivation should take 10 years, with 700,000 metric tons of infrastructure crushed and freighted off to burial plots in Utah, Texas, and Arizona. The most radioactive stuff—3.2 million pounds of spent nuclear waste, including uranium-235—will be interred on-site in steel-and-concrete casks that will dot the landscape like tombstones. It’s a fitting metaphor for what seems like the beginning of the end of America’s nuclear-energy ambitions. San Onofre is one of 19 nuclear power plants in the U.S. undergoing decommissioning. Of the 99 remaining reactors in the U.S. fleet, as much as one-third might be taken offline within a decade or two. Some might apply for an extension. But many could close for good thanks to three things that are killing off nuclear energy worldwide: competition from cheap natural gas, the rising affordability of wind and solar generation, and fear of radiation-spewing accidents.
- Update: 1/10/18—This article has been updated to reflect that Cohen was referring to a combined cycle natural gas plant instead of a compressed-gas plant.